The Learned Society of Wales presents:

Civic Engagement for Inclusive Innovation in Wales

The Learned Society of Wales hosted a roundtable of experts to reflect on the importance of civic engagement in stimulating inclusive innovation. Our objective in hosting the roundtable was to discover how various universities and institutions in Wales and beyond conceptualise and approach the civic engagement process.


Definitions of civic mission vary, but discussions centred around the ways in which research and innovation organisations can make a meaningful difference for the people and places on their doorstep through engaging citizens, partnering with a range of civic entities, and thereby maximising their positive influence as anchoring institutions within a place.

Critical insights: 

Regional Collaboration:

Foster collaboration and coordination between universities, further education providers, businesses, the third sector, the public sector, and communities within the region. Develop and continually invest in inclusive local networks that transcend traditional boundaries to enhance the impact of civic engagement initiatives.

Place-Based Approaches:  

Learning from other localities must be adapted and applied carefully. To establish their contribution as anchoring institutions, research and innovation organisations must develop a tailored civic mission based on a deep understanding of their area, its communities and its uniqueness.

Investment in Institutional Capability:

Focus on strengthening institutional capability and absorptive capacity to engage with communities effectively, as collaboration is labour-intensive. Within higher education institutions and their collaborators, commitment and expertise in excellent civic engagement should be mainstreamed across budgets, policies and departments rather than relying on individuals or specific projects.

The Power of Civic Engagement:

Ambitious approaches to civic engagement have been rewarded with significant benefits for researchers and institutions while contributing to positive societal outcomes. Meaningful civic engagement can lead to knowledge creation and cutting-edge, inclusive innovation.


Celebrating Achievements:

It is essential to celebrate the progress made in civic engagement efforts both locally and nationally and to share success through research and written work. Recognising successful initiatives can inspire and inform others, fostering a culture of community involvement.

Conceptualising Civic Engagement

Place-based approaches have been key to engaging with local communities both in Wales and at a rural US university.

The Welsh Government’s Innovation Strategy (2023) “seeks to use innovation to deliver impact and value for citizens in a modern Welsh economy by coordinating people, organisations such as business and academia and funding bodies to maximise outcomes and investment from Welsh, UK and international sources.”

The roundtable’s four speakers presented a dynamic definition of civic engagement from experience of putting this into practice. Place-based approaches have been key to engaging with local communities both in Wales and at a rural US university. For example, the evolution of civic engagement within Welsh universities has been aligned with legislative frameworks such as the Well-being of Future Generations Act; this has been crucial for shaping long-term initiatives. In many cases, civic engagement has been highly effective not only for knowledge exchange but also for knowledge creation.

These perspectives underscored the multidimensional nature of civic engagement, encompassing collaboration, research, community-based initiatives, and education. Together, they contribute to a comprehensive understanding of civic engagement as a process that involves equitable partnerships, knowledge generation, and active participation in addressing societal issues.

National The Edge Tool from the Co-ordinating Centre for Public Engagement

More recently, university approaches to civic engagement have evolved from sporadic initiatives to institutionalised frameworks embedded within their larger missions.

The Role of Universities and Institutions in Civic Engagement

Today, universities embrace interdisciplinary collaboration, partnership-building, and community-based research as integral aspects of civic engagement, fostering a culture of mutual benefit between institutions and communities.

Universities and other institutions are pivotal in fostering civic engagement and community development. Across Wales and beyond, these entities serve as catalysts for positive change, leveraging their resources, expertise, and partnerships to address pressing societal challenges. However, universities have not always prioritised knowledge exchange and civic engagement, but the last fifteen years have seen a significant shift. Before then, academic institutions prioritised curriculum development and international academic publication rather than working for the communities on their doorstep. More recently, university approaches to civic engagement have evolved from sporadic initiatives to institutionalised frameworks embedded within their larger missions. This shift reflects a broader recognition of universities’ social responsibility and capacity to contribute meaningfully to societal well-being. Today, universities embrace interdisciplinary collaboration, partnership-building, and community-based research as integral aspects of civic engagement, fostering a culture of mutual benefit between institutions and communities. That said, there is considerable scope for further development of the civic mission agenda. The roundtable discussed the roles played by universities and considered both exemplars of successful engagement and the challenges to be faced.

Firstly, universities and institutions act as hubs for collaboration and coordination, bringing together diverse stakeholders from academia, government, non-profit organisations, and communities. In Wales, initiatives like the South Wales Civic Engagement Partnership, a partnership between the five universities and five colleges operating within the Cardiff Capital Region, exemplify this collaborative approach. Under the partnership, universities work alongside third-sector organisations to drive impactful projects aligned with regional priorities. One notable example of these projects involves facilitating “community conversations,” which encompass discussions ranging from engaging with the creative sector to collaborating with asylum-seeking support organizations and individuals supporting adult learners within the community. Additionally, the Local Challenges Research Office at Swansea University, which was founded to help promote understanding of the challenges and opportunities that communities are experiencing across the region, signifies an institutional step toward engaging with local communities more systematically. This initiative is in the initial stages of its development and emerged as part of the university’s redevelopment of its research strategy a couple of years ago.

Secondly, universities and institutions serve as knowledge generators and disseminators, conducting research and producing insights that inform policy and practice. The emphasis on place-based research reflects a commitment to understanding and addressing local needs and contexts, generating knowledge tailored to the unique challenges a place’s communities face. For example, the University of Wyoming, designated as a Carnegie Foundation Community Engaged campus, defines community engagement as “collaboration between institutions of higher education and their larger communities for the mutually beneficial creation and exchange of knowledge and resources in a context of partnership and reciprocity.” Their commitment to this type of community engagement is exemplified by projects like the Wallop Civic Engagement Program K-12 Curriculum Project, a partnership with Wyoming educators aimed at providing multimedia teaching resources to smaller communities, which was especially important during the challenges of COVID-19. Additionally, the South Wales Civic Engagement Partnership prioritises celebrating the civic work currently being done in Wales and translating those successes into written work and research. They have two books currently under peer review in line with this goal.

Moreover, universities and institutions play a crucial role in nurturing a culture of civic engagement and social responsibility among students, faculty, and staff. By integrating civic mission frameworks into their institutional ethos, as seen in incorporating the Well-being and Future Generations Act into university practices, institutions can instil values of community service and active citizenship. For example, the National Co-ordinating Centre for Public Engagement offers tools and frameworks to support institutions in enacting diverse engagement initiatives, promoting a culture of inclusivity and reciprocity.

In summary, universities and institutions play multifaceted roles in civic engagement, serving as catalysts for collaboration, generators of knowledge, cultivators of civic values, and facilitators of dialogue and exchange. By leveraging their unique strengths and resources, these entities can drive positive social change and contribute to the well-being and resilience of their respective communities and regions.

By integrating civic mission frameworks into their institutional ethos, as seen in incorporating the Well-being and Future Generations Act into university practices, institutions can instil values of community service and active citizenship.

Challenges and Opportunities for Civic Engagement in Wales

We may begin to see universities seeking innovative funding mechanisms and partnerships to bolster their civic engagement endeavours, as well as harnessing the potential of civic engagement for boosting local innovation.

There is a notable economic strain on universities in Wales, impacting their ability to prioritise and sustain civic engagement initiatives amidst competing financial priorities. This economic stress often results in a need to find more resources and support for civic engagement efforts. However, this challenge presents an opportunity for universities to reassess their priorities to ensure civic engagement is considered essential rather than an afterthought. We may begin to see universities seeking innovative funding mechanisms and partnerships to bolster their civic engagement endeavours, as well as harnessing the potential of civic engagement for boosting local innovation.

Secondly, universities must work in partnership to overcome the traditional binary divide between higher and further education, fostering collaboration and mutual respect between institutions to maximise their collective impact on community engagement. This collaboration allows leveraging the diverse expertise and resources available across educational sectors to address complex societal challenges more effectively.

The roundtable underscored the importance of recognising and addressing knowledge gaps that may arise from expert turnover within institutions. It emphasised the need for structured processes to ensure the continuity of engagement efforts and prevent the loss of valuable expertise. This recognition presents an opportunity to invest in knowledge management strategies and mentorship programmes to retain institutional knowledge and expertise.

Lastly, ensuring inclusivity and equity in civic engagement remains a persistent challenge and a crucial opportunity for universities to engage marginalised voices and communities actively in decision-making processes. By prioritising diversity and inclusion, universities can foster a culture of belonging and empowerment, leading to more equitable outcomes for all stakeholders involved. Addressing these challenges and embracing opportunities demands strategic planning, resource allocation, and a commitment to fostering meaningful partnerships between universities, communities, and stakeholders in Wales.

By prioritising diversity and inclusion, universities can foster a culture of belonging and empowerment, leading to more equitable outcomes for all stakeholders involved.

Background: Learned Society of Wales Innovation Roundtables

Over the last two years, the Society has held a series of innovation roundtables, bringing together innovation experts, practitioners, and leaders to help inform and contribute to discussions that may improve innovation policies and practices in and for Wales. This activity programme initially coincided with the Welsh Government’s development of the Innovation Strategy for Wales and associated delivery plans. For 2024, the Society has commenced a new series of innovation roundtable programmes.

In this next phase, the Society is further engaging with thought leaders and practitioners in the field, continuing to develop recommendations to help inform and improve innovation strategies and the innovation environment in Wales. The core new theme for this next phase is “Inclusive innovation,” which is defined in the broadest sense but with particular emphasis on equality, diversity, and inclusion, as well as measuring impact beyond the economic. This second phase will also include a deep dive into a theme from the previous series of roundtables: “Innovation in Small Nations,” an opportunity to share lessons that Wales can learn from other small nations.

All roundtable sessions are conducted under Chatham House rules, and this is the anonymised and unattributed report of critical points from the second roundtable.

The Learned Society of Wales is Wales’s national academy for arts and sciences. Its Fellowship brings together experts from across all academic fields and beyond. The Society uses this collective knowledge to promote research, inspire learning, and provide independent policy advice.